BY NORAH WAKULA
Copyright is held by the author.
“IF YOU don’t shut up, I’ll throw this salad on your head.”
The words were out there, and I couldn’t take them back.
My mother hardly missed a beat. She put her fork down on the Formica-topped table, straightened her back to make her just-under-five-foot frame a little taller. She lifted her head a fraction, making her jaw protrude ever so slightly, and stared in, what I’m sure by now, were my 12-year-old glaring green eyes.
“I … dare … you.”
She knew me. She knew these three words could change the course of history. She knew: I never backed down from a dare.
My friends knew it, too.
“I dare you to steal those blue popsicles.”
I did it.
“I dare you to wear blue jeans to school.”
I did it.
“I dare you to kiss Greg Schmalinsky, right on the lips.”
I did it.
Once, I even jumped off a boxcar that was parked at the loading dock at Continental Can.
You bet I was. More afraid than when I was six years old and some kids in the campground at Falcon Lake dared me to dive off the high diving board. Critters were doing the merengue in my belly, but I jumped – both times.
The relationship between my mother and me was a turbulent one — putting it mildly. As my father said, what do you expect when you have two women living under the same roof? One just approaching teen age, the other nearing menopause. And both of them competing for who father likes best.
My mother’s a Scorpio, and like a scorpion, she would lay low and wait for just the right moment to attack. She wouldn’t know the where, the when, or the how of it, but was quick to recognize the opportunity and pounce.
Now me – what you see, is what you get. I couldn’t hide an emotion and neither could I control one.
My mother knew this about me.
It had started out a normal family dinner – my mom and dad, me, and my brother, Walter, my mother’s prince. Eight years older than me, Walter was the kind of guy all the parents in the neighbourhood wanted their sons to grow up to be, and the kind of guy everyone wanted their daughters to marry. Clean cut and polite. When he was 16, Walter won top air cadet of the year award. Unlike me, who hung out on street corners and smoked cigarettes, and a couple of years later would be escorted home from a party by the police.
What the neighbours didn’t know about was the time Walter and Steve Zabarlo stole my dad’s ’57 Chev from the driveway on the side of the house.
But my dad was my champion. “She’ll get better, Helen. You wait. You’ll see.” And they waited.
What was also normal about the dinner was that by the end of it, my mother and I would be arguing about something. I’ve forgotten the “something” this particular evening, but I do remember she was riding me, riding me hard, and she wouldn’t stop.
My fingers were just inches from the slightly melted plastic soup bowl we used for our daily salad – iceberg lettuce, a couple of rings of thick sliced Spanish onion and tomatoes picked fresh from our garden. I hadn’t yet drowned it with Thousand Island salad dressing.
Mom, you really didn’t say that? Mom … come on, please …take it back.
No one said a word.
My father didn’t say, “Now stop it you two.” Nor did he say, “How dare you speak to your mother like that? Go to your room. Now!” I imagine my brother was stifling a smile and thinking, “I wonder how this one is going to turn out?”
Those critters were back in my belly but this time they’d bunched themselves into a tight knot.
My fingers curled around the lip of the pink plastic bowl. My jaw clenched firm. Tears pooled up in the corners of my eyes. I stood up and took the one step that put me beside her chair, towering over my mother.
The knot tightened.
Sweat beaded over my entire body and I could taste bile bubbling up from my belly. My arm felt like concrete but I raised it. I tilted the bowl and watched the lettuce, rings of onion, and two wedges of ripe tomatoes tumble out and onto my mother’s cold-wave.
Still holding onto the bowl, I ran to my bedroom. I didn’t make it there before I was sobbing.
But, I’d seen it. Just before I ran. I’d seen the look in my mother’s eyes, and the subtle movement of her mouth. Yes, she was surprised, all right, but that one brief moment I saw it.
And, I heard her, “See, she really is the devil.”
She had me exactly where she wanted me. She’d won, and we both knew it.